During the pandemic, there were significant declines in face-to-face and event fundraising. This was not surprising with lockdowns and social distancing measures. While fundraisers looked for alternative ways to bring in much-needed revenue for their causes, it soon became apparent that one fundraising technique was going to grow: telephone fundraising.

It made sense as most people were stuck at home and using the phone as a lifeline. So, more charities hired telephone fundraising agencies to conduct telephone campaigns. But they didn’t just ask for donations, they also contacted supporters to see how they were coping during the pandemic. What resulted were personalised and highly engaging conversations as donors appreciated the contact. In some cases, support also went up.

While this development was positive, there were inevitably some concerns about the growth in the channel considering the volume and the potential for new entrants. While many of the long-established telephone fundraising agencies are FIA members, the sector saw several new telephone fundraising organisations emerge during the pandemic. The concern was that these agencies may not understand the requirement for best practice nor would they know the tenets of the FIA Code, bringing heightened risk to the sector.

Indeed, some evidence from overseas fundraising sectors suggests that poor practice around telephone fundraising could have a detrimental effect on the entire fundraising sector, leading to increased scrutiny and loss of donor trust and confidence. As the peak body for professional fundraising, we know we must keep donors onside by having telephone fundraisers do the right thing.

In 2021, we talked to our member telephone agencies about our concerns, many of whom also agreed about the potential risk to all of us. From these conversations came the idea to develop a kind of ‘tick approval’ scheme where FIA would highlight the telephone fundraising specialists that were best-practice focused and would encourage our members to use these suppliers. We could also reach out to non-members to demonstrate the benefits of being part of the FIA community thereby helping them to self-select adherence to the Code and best practice.

As a result and via a healthy and collaborative approach, we developed a voluntary audit of telephone fundraising calls made by members who believed in the power of Code compliance and ethical best practice.

While the FIA Code has been widely adopted by fundraising organisations and their staff, ensuring supplier organisations also demonstrate compliance boosts adherence across the sector. A positive audit result would give charities greater confidence in choosing FIA supplier members for campaigns. Meanwhile, FIA would also be able to show regulators that self-regulation of the telefundraising channel was working.

“A few areas did require improvement. This included the need for managers to provide additional training and support for telephone fundraisers to help them have more natural conversations with donors and not rely so heavily on scripts.”

To begin, we hired an independent auditor to monitor member agencies’ telephone fundraising practices and benchmark the findings against the FIA Code. The idea was for the auditor to listen to a random selection of telephone fundraising agency calls supplied by the various agencies. The auditor would then mark the agencies on whether or not they were following regulations mandated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), as well as best practice guidelines outlined in the FIA Code and its supplementary practice note on telephone fundraising conduct.

The audit launched in late 2022, with nine of the 14 member agencies participating and providing randomly selected call data for the exercise. The participants were Adflex Marketing, Apple Marketing, Clever Contacts, Cornucopia Consulting, GiveTel, MonDial Fundraising Communications, Pareto Phone Pty Ltd, Public Outreach Consultancy Australia Pty Ltd and Smart Health Australia.

The auditor listened to over 220 calls covering the following areas: raffles, cash appeals, conversion, lead generation and donor upgrades. There were checks to determine if the telephone fundraisers were compliant with ACMA legislation on calling times and how telephone fundraisers managed their complaints-handling processes. There were checks on data handling and training (eg, evidence staff had undertaken Code and other professional training). The auditor also examined the calls for compliance with FIA Code and relevant practice notes, including vulnerable donor identification and management.

Overall, the results were positive and did not suggest systemic underlying compliance issues. The auditor noted broad consistency from the nine agencies in their approach to calls, and all were pretty Code-compliant. 

A few areas did require improvement. This included the need for managers to provide additional training and support for telephone fundraisers to help them have more natural conversations with donors and not rely so heavily on scripts. A small percentage of calls showed some telephone fundraisers may not have listened very closely to the donor and may not have been able to detect potential vulnerability. Additionally, a few telephone fundraisers forgot to identify themselves and the organisation they were calling from.

I provided constructive feedback to all the telephone agencies on our findings. Members noted the results and promised to provide more training and procedures to improve their practice.

Pleasingly, the audit was well-received by members who saw value in the exercise. We have now decided, in consultation with the participants, to conduct an annual audit of the telephone member agencies to ensure continuous improvement in practice.

We also decided to communicate the results of this pilot project to our member organisations so they can be confident they are dealing with reputable telephone fundraising suppliers. The next step is to develop additional training for agency telephone fundraising staff who have not undertaken Code training but would benefit from an introduction to fundraising practice and the FIA Code.

We hope all FIA supplier members who do telephone fundraising will consider participating in the audit program in the future. We will also be reaching out to non-member agencies to ask them to consider joining FIA to become part of the fundraising best practice community.

At the same time, we are informing the various regulators about the audit so they can see we are testing our self-regulatory framework around different fundraising channels. We know that the legislative landscape could shift at any time, and rules around telephone fundraising could become more restrictive if telephone fundraisers do not abide by the Code.

With the threat of more restrictions ever present, FIA is committed to continuing to monitor member compliance and encourage non-members to get on board with the Code. The opportunities are there for continuous improvement and advancement for the good of the sector and the building of trust in supporters. We want to continue demonstrating to regulators that self-regulation is working in telephone fundraising, so fundraisers can continue to use the telephone freely for fundraising and engaging with their donors. And with the success of this exercise, we will look to audit other fundraising channels in the near future.

Katherine Raskob is the Chief Executive Officer of Fundraising Institute Australia